Frontenac House - August 17, 2006 - 0 Comments
Invisible Foreground by David Bateman
Reviewed by Jenn Houle
David Bateman’s Invisible Foreground is easily among the most interesting and enjoyable poetic collections I have read since the turn of the millennium. I was worried, when I first opened it, and saw the many long, free verse installments ahead of me. I could tell by the book’s layout that I was in for a long, conversational interlude. I was in for anecdotes, story and spin, and this unnerved me, because, unfortunately, this is a style of poetry that has been going largely wrong for many years now, maybe since the 70s, when English-language poets could still confess and consider at length and not be in any sort of shamed rush about it. It looked like the sort of poetry which might get reviewed as “rollicking” or “free-wheeling”. I also noted the presence of two double-columned poems, another form I have rarely found to be engaging—the mirroring attempted so frequently serves only to disorient.
And yet: the next thing I knew, I was rather entranced. Bateman’s tone is always congenial, and he achieves an ease with his subjects that I found refreshing, intellectually engaging, compelling and a lot of fun. Bateman is a performance artist, and that’s another thing I was uptight and tetchy about at first: all too often I have found that performative or spoken-word poetry, though possibly excellent on its own terms, translates horrendously as reading material. But Bateman’s work holds up well in this regard—assuming much of the content was originally constructed for performance, which a back-jacket blurb suggests it was. I would even go so far as to say it constitutes one of the most successful examples of this I have ever seen. There are many linguistic tricks, but none are painfully self-indulgent, or solely for the sake of themselves. The puns and the plays on words come at exactly the right times, and often come almost like wisdom. There is a great sagacity in Bateman, and the emotional intelligence he brings to sometimes jarring, sometimes deceptively trivial material is what distinguishes this collection.
Because, oh yes, there are drag queens here. And there is homosexuality; there are meditations on sexual identity, sexual development (including a very tastefully handled acknowledgment of sexual abuse), and there are many, many references to home décor. There is a trip to Vegas. And, yet, there is profundity, depth, a highly textured whole—background, foreground, subjects, all. I did wish Cher hadn’t been mentioned, because I felt it a smidge too obvious, and the speaker’s claim that he believes “in Cher” (16), early on, made me roll my eyes just a little. Come on, Bateman, be a little less obvious, right? Truthfully, there were several instances where a bit of editing for preciosity might have benefited individual poems, for instance, the punch of “Semi Detached” (31) might be lost when
the appalling majesty of the suburbs
communes of fortune
legacy of evolving house husbands/wives
cases of imported beer
to crave the present of nostalgia here
in these quaint tombs
queer treed lots
hot tubs, the sound of trains beyond the fortress wall
intimating life outside this camp atrocious kitsch
this glorious denial
is suddenly concluded with “I want to live here!” (31). Could be sarcasm, could be meant as a joke, could be the voice of some conflicted character, but it is never clear, and it is certainly a too-cute ending. More could have been done here to clarify, as far as tone goes, but this is a minor quibble.
At times, the collection is outright funny, “Two thirds haiku on trans gender, for Tammy Wynette”: “sometimes it makes me/hard to be a woman” (66), being my favorite instance. On occasion, the humor seems just a little too clichéd, although, to be fair, this is a collection that culls much of its content from the myriad clichés of the cultural landscapes we inhabit and traverse. The land itself, of course, being the ultimate cliché. In fact, one of the most surprising elements of this collection is its sustained meditation on the land—I was somehow put in mind of Milton Acorn whenever this theme shimmered into focus. Did the figures in Bateman’s landscapes make them? The collection’s title would suggest otherwise, as would most of the poems. Contrariwise, were they made invisible by the landscape? I tend to think not—the people in these poems seem to have created themselves despite the environments the previous generation raised them in. They find ways to inhabit the clichés, live with the ugly, overbearing furniture, live within the prevalent myths of their time (become fans of Cher?), as survivors, as affronts, or incidental radicals. Do they adorn the landscape, if not create its structures? Do they simply redecorate it rather than destroy it? Several interesting analogies are suggested.
In the introductory and tone-setting poem “Storey and a Half”, Bateman writes:
when I go to land that asserts itself disallows intervention
I am distant, awed and somewhat relieved
by the claustrophobic grammar of my prison sentence
by no real felt obligation to make sense of any of this
save the scars on my ideas of order, of the world,
so profoundly destabilized (13)
I may have been reminded of Acorn, but the American Wallace Stevens is the poet most frequently alluded to here; “The Idea of Order at Key West” is referenced more than once, and this is telling. Stuck within such deterministic landscapes, songs, not trains, become methods of conveyance. An awareness of culture as a made and communicated thing informs the entire collection. In “Summer on the West Nile: a parannoyed monologue” Bateman captures the Toronto cityscape at the height of the SARS scare in great, derisive detail and, from there, launches into a consideration of all North American cities: “these ice-ageist white trading centers” (83). Bateman is a master surveyor, and his evaluation of what he observes is both clever and scathing—but to his credit, he shows far, far more than he tells.
On that note, this collection is also profoundly sexual, but there was nothing cheap or prurient in Bateman’s treatment of this always difficult subject matter. It is, in fact, without a doubt, in these poems that his voice is the strongest, and most moving. I wouldn’t call his style strictly erotic: it is much too realistic for that. One of the double-columned poems I had been so dreading, “Autumn,” is actually a wonderful example of this:
Nights that fluctuate from the faintest chill to almost pudding warmth then this frail breeze some bed of goldenrod I call it ragweed
the faintest chill your almost pudding warmth to this frail code between us nothing happens but the blunt insatiate way you fuck me
I didn’t mind the double-columns and I found the sex illuminating. True, the collection could have benefited from the murders of a few darlings. But overall, especially for a debut (although, I sense, a long, long overdue debut it is), the good outweighs the bad. Bateman’s candor, wit and willingness to risk cliché for the sake of authenticity are rare in Canadian lit right now, and I sincerely hope we will see (and hear) a good deal more from him. Whether or not Bateman chooses to continue focusing on live performance, his skill as a poet is too great not to be put down on paper, and edited a little bit more for the page. Not too much though — and definitely not at the cost of his candor or his witty, cutting (yet somehow also, optimistic) insights.